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Mark Steyn

On the Town

Moment of Ecstasy

One hundred years ago this coming week - November 9th 1914 - Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. She became a silver-screen siren in the Hollywood Golden Age, and a co-inventor of the most ubiquitous technology of the 21st century:

In 2000, the day after she died, the newspapers were pretty much in agreement: Hedy Lamarr couldn't act. Well, I wouldn't say that. A few years back, I got to see the famous Ecstasy, the 1933 film in which Miss Lamarr skips nude through the woods, her sun-dappled form twinkling midst the foliage like a gamboling fawn. She does the backstroke across a translucent lake. Better than Esther Williams, I'd say. Louis B Mayer so enjoyed the sight of her breasts gliding through the waters like a synchronised-swimming duo wearing British police helmets that he signed her up for $125 a week. "She's got perfect tits," he said.

True. But it's the orgasm scene that really impresses. I don't recall much about the build-up to it - she's married to an older man; she rides off to go skinny-dipping; her horse bolts and, inconveniently, happens to take all her clothes with him, as often happens with careless mounts. But I'll remember the intense radiant glow of Hedy Lamarr's eyes as long as I remember any movie: whatever its defects, Ecstasy certainly lives up to its title. One assumes she was faking it, but, if so, she did a more agreeable job than Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, who, to be fair, was technically faking "faking orgasm". The whole sequence has a disarming honesty that makes the filmic fornication of our own time - the slo-mo thrusting, the constipated facial expressions, the soft-rock power ballad on the soundtrack - seem like some ludicrous agglomeration of pantomime conventions. Thousands of people can speak dialogue competently, but it's amazing how few can do a really good sex scene. Hedy Lamarr was the Olivier of orgasms.

In the US, innumerable jurisdictions banned Ecstasy because it showed full-frontal nudity. In Germany, they banned it because it showed full-frontal nudity by a Jewess. So Hedwig Kiesler, as she still was, decided to leave her boring husband, the munitions magnate Fritz Mandl, and, after Louis B Mayer offered her breasts a contract, to head for Hollywood. She boarded the SS Normandie as Hedwig Kiesler, she disembarked in New York as Hedy Lamarr. And, sad to say, nothing she did as Hedy Lamarr matched the performance Hedwig Kiesler turned in in Ecstasy.

Reviewing Lady of the Tropics (1939) in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther sniffed:

Now that she has inadvisedly been given an opportunity to act, it is necessary to report that she is essentially one of those museum pieces, like the Mona Lisa, who are more beautiful in repose.

The poor fellow got it absolutely wrong. Moanin' and a-groanin' and a-whimperin' and a-shudderin', Hedy was in a class of her own. But you couldn't get away with any of that in American films, so all she got to do (to quote Nat 'King' Cole's "Mona Lisa"), was just lie there and die there.

She was The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships (1954) and the mouth that launched a thousand quips. Her big line in White Cargo (1942) - the one about the jungle seductress who ensnares British plantation chappies in colonial Africa – was:

I [long pause] am Tondelayo.

It sounds better purred sultrily, but not much. On his radio show, Jack Benny began doing gags about a shop-girl called Tondelayo Schwarzkopf. Having introduced her to America as "the most beautiful girl in the world", Louis B seemed to have no further idea of what to do with her. After her first Hollywood film, Casbah (1938) with Charles Boyer, students at Columbia University voted her the girl they'd most like to be shipwrecked on a desert island with. Women adopted Hedy hairdos, parted down the middle. But what we would now call the "buzz" never translated into anything on screen. Hollywood loved taking exotic, dangerous, foreign beauties and making them bland and vapid. And Hedy did her best to help: she turned down Casablanca, Gaslight and Laura, but she said yes to Strange Woman and Dishonored Lady.

There was, of course, Cecil B De Mille's Samson and Delilah (1949), opposite Victor Mature. Interrupted by Delilah while he's fighting a lion, Samson says, "Hey, one cat at a time!" Even her embonpoint was playing second fiddle: "His breasts are bigger than hers!" scoffed De Mille. But she looked fabulous: raven mane, sloe eyes, vermilion lips, alabaster skin. Hedda Hopper pronounced her "orchidaceous", but that makes her sound a little too tended: she was, as they used to say, flawless, but in a very natural way. There are still, technically, foreign beauties - for example, that Slovene supermodel Donald Trump once dated - but by the time they show up in the great republic they've adopted Hollywood standards of beauty, and are, alas, as homogenized and airbrushed and as any of the locals.

But Hedy was a star in an age when stars were still allowed to be mysterious. Who knows what she was really like? Her book Ecstasy And Me: My Life As A Woman (1966) was a corker, complete with a little light lesbianism. Hedy stuff, indeed. But Hedy Lamarr sapphically inclined was bound to be too good to be true - like the story about Sinatra coming home and finding Ava Gardner in bed with Lana Turner. Hedy sued her ghostwriter for peddling a lot of sleazy fiction. Indeed, she acquired quite a taste for litigation, suing over the use of her image in commercials and an alleged rape in Los Angeles. She was twice stopped for shoplifting, but the charges never went anywhere. In 1941, a conversation with the composer George Antheil about how to enlarge her bosom led the two of them to invent the "spread-spectrum" radio system that, in the Eighties, became a cornerstone of cell-phone technology, and later WiFi and Bluetooth. Cool. If you're going to have two strings to your bow, faking orgasm and inventing cell phones are one hell of a spread spectrum.

In the Seventies, 15 years after her last film, Mel Brooks made her a running gag in Blazing Saddles: the idiot governor's eminence grise, a man called Hedley Lamarr, is perpetually irked at being introduced as Hedy. A technically anachronistic joke for a western, it nevertheless kept her name alive for another generation. She retired to Orlando, Florida. Which seems an odd retirement choice for Tondelayo. But in the last snapshot I saw she was still beautiful. For Lady of the Tropics, the MGM publicity department wrote:

You too will be 'Hedy' with delight and your verdict will be 'Lamarrvellous'.

And you can't ask for a better epitaph than that.

~Mark writes on Marilyn Monroe, Mel Gibson and other screen stars in his new book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn. It's one of The New York Times' Top Ten humor bestsellers, and on sale now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and even your local Costco in the US, or in Canada from Indigo-Chapters, Amazon and McNally-Robinson. Or, for instant gratification, get it in eBook - in Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. And, wherever you are on the planet, we're happy to ship you a personally autographed copy direct from the SteynOnline bookstore.

from On the Town, November 8, 2014

 

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